Her Secret to Keep

 

“Centenary Methodist Church, that’s where they were married,” I told Tom. “That would be a good place to start.” My brother and I had exhausted our search through our parents’ house for their marriage certificate. Tom was the youngest of the five of us, and would not remember Centenary since we moved from St. Louis when he was two. The only son, he had taken responsibility for Mom in her final years. At 92, she was now in a nursing home near Tom in Orlando, lost to us in what seemed an impenetrable fog. And she was outliving her money.

Dad had been in the Navy during WWII, and it was only a recent thought motivated by desperation that Mom might be due some benefits. My brother was wading through the red tape of the VA. He had dutifully filled out numerous papers. The final requirement: proof of their marriage.

Tom reached the church and was waiting for the clerk to retrieve the certificate. I idly stared out the window of his apartment as an image of their wedding pictures came to mind. What an expanse of time had passed since that day. Married for what? Forty years at the time our dad died?

Just as Tom switched on the speakerphone we heard the clerk’s voice. “There’s no record of the marriage of Mildred Long and Eugene Wallace here,” we heard the woman say. We looked at each other. He had a slight frown but remained calm, as usual. I was throwing my arms upward as I mouthed an emphatic, “What?!” Tom turned away, I’m sure in an effort to avoid my oddly contorting face. He needed to focus. “Oh,” I heard him finally say to the woman. “Maybe we have the wrong year.”

“No, I’m sorry. Those names don’t come up in any year.”

We were stumped. “Well, thanks for looking,” my brother was saying.

Then she added, “Try calling Jefferson City. Ask for Records.”

“Thank you,” we said in unison, grateful to know we weren’t at a dead end.

I googled Jefferson City while Tom picked up the phone again. Government offices, Records: Titles, Deeds, Marriage! I read the number aloud and Tom dialed. Greeted by the standard automated answering message, he patiently pushed the designated numbers and eventually reached a live person. As he made his request, I began to jot down “Ask if they would be willing to FedEx it to us.” But before I could finish writing, Tom had hung up. “Not there,” he said. Again, we stared into space, then at each other, back into space again. “Let’s get lunch,” I said.

At a nearby sandwich shop we were able to get a bit of a reprieve from what was turning out to be an arduous and perplexing task. We joked about the possibility that our parents were never actually married. Then we moved on to talk about world affairs, politics, and our respective careers. After lunch we drove by the nursing home and sat with Mom for a while.

She was sleeping, and we no longer tried to rouse her. She was in her final days, or hours. It was alarming, if I let myself think about it, how little she resembled my mother. So small. She had always been petite, but now her skin seemed draped over the bare bones. There was no more of her natural curl left in her hair. It had become thin and barely covered her skull. I took her hand, sang to her one of her favorite hymns, This is My Father’s World. Then Tom spoke to her with such gentleness. He as a good son. He’d been able to be patient with her long after my resilience wore out.

We alternated between talking to her directly, as if she had the mental capacity to understand us, and talking about her in the third person. Finally, I said, “We gotta get going, Mom. Sure wish you could tell us where your marriage certificate is.”

Once back at Tom’s apartment, he phoned the gentleman he had spoken with earlier at the VA to tell him we were not able to locate a marriage certificate. In spite of commonly held beliefs, and our own past experience with the impersonal bureaucracy of the VA, Tom had been fortunate enough to have happened on a guy who was sincerely helpful. Now he was asking Tom if there was someone who had been present at the wedding who could validate their marriage. Simultaneously we thought through the short list of relatives in the photos. Only one was still alive. Aunt Dot.

We called our dear aunt, who still lived in St. Louis. After a brief catching up on Mom’s status, I asked her, “Aunt Dot, you were at Mom’s wedding, right?” Without even a slight pause she said, “Well, I was at her second wedding, when she married your dad.”

“What?!” I must have shouted. “Her second marriage? Mom was married before?”

“Well, yes Honey. I thought you knew that. The hockey player. You didn’t know?”

After a few moments of stunned silence, Tom and I laughed. We couldn’t wait to tell our other siblings. What a story! Keeping that secret all those years!

Later I was hit by a wave of sadness. Why did Mom feel she couldn’t share that? Did she ever consider telling us? Was she ashamed, embarrassed? I wished I could go to her and tell her she didn’t need to be ashamed, that none of us would regard her differently.

But even if she could hear and/or understand me, I later thought, I hoped I would have the grace to let it be. It was her secret and she wanted it that way. I hope she wasn’t troubled by it. She chose to leave it in the past, and out of our awareness. I can respect that. And honor that. I love you, Mom.

 

 

The Dancer Inside

As a three-year-old, I went along when my sister, Susie, four years older, had dance lessons at Madame Cassane’s studio in St. Louis. Mother and I watched as she held onto the barre, and followed the teacher’s stern commands spoken roughly in a heavy, French accent. I recall Susie in her pink leotard and tights, and soft, pink ballet slippers, her long auburn braids pinned on top of her head. I watched as she checked herself in the mirror and smiled obligingly when she got a nod of approval from Madame Cassane.

Susie hated Madame Cassane. The worst part came at the end of the class, she said. The girls were to patter around the perimeter of the studio, stop one at a time to curtsy to the piano accompanist, then again at the doorway, where stood their instructor, and say, “Good-bye, Madame Cassane.” Later in the car on the way home Susie would complain and mock herself and the others in a sing-songy voice, “Good-bye, Madame Cassane.”

Mother said I would take dance lessons when I was older.

We moved from one end of St. Louis to the other when I turned six, placing us a considerable distance away from Madame Cassane’s Studio. Susie had quit dance lessons long ago by then, having convinced our mother that she would not progress under the tutelage of that “mean witch.” She had no interest in pursuing dance lessons.

There was never again a mention of my enrollment in a dance class.

Looking back I realize I would not have looked as adorable as Susie did in leotard and tights, not to mention a tutu. In fact, you know those hippos in Fantasia, dancing around in giant tutus, the ruffles of which covered the vast circumference of their midsection? Sort of like that. That would have been me. I’ve always imagined that Mom may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of sitting there with the other mothers whose daughters were more ballerina-like.

Mother always insisted that I was not fat. A bit plump, she would say. But as we were growing up Susie was much more honest. She liked to call me Fatty Patty then laugh hysterically. Our parents told her that was off-limits, but she found ways to sneak it in. She even bought me a monogrammed pen once, under the guise of generosity. It said “Patty,” on it. I had never been called Patty except by her, and I grew to abhor the name. It’s okay for other people, but if someone mistakenly calls me that (it is a common nickname for Patricia), in the inner depths of me I hear “Fatty Patty.”

When the tune “Blueberry Hill” was popular on the radio, Susie began calling me “Domino.” Mother told her to cut it out. “Why?! What’s wrong with Domino? It’s a game!”

Two more sisters came after me, then finally a brother. The whole family was toward the lean side. Dad was 6’ 2” and thin. Mother was a whole foot shorter and petite in stature. All of my siblings were lean and fit. I was the only one lacking the wing-like shoulder blades, visible ribs, and bony knees.

I wasn’t inactive. I jumped rope, ran, played softball, tag, and kick-the-can along with the other neighborhood kids. I was the pogo stick champion, able to maintain jumping longer than anyone else. But you wouldn’t find me on the jungle gym on the school playground. Swinging on monkey bars was not my thing. I was mortified when we had rope climbing in gym class. While other children zipped up the rope and back down, I could barely hold on to the rope, much less pull myself upwards.

“Tricia can’t climb the apple tree,” I overheard my grandmother chuckling one day as she told Mom. It was true. Susie and my younger sisters were able to grab the higher branches and pull their lean bodies up with ease.

The agony of clothes shopping as a Chubbette continued through my grade school years. I still have vague, unpleasant flashbacks every September when I see “Back to School” ads. I recall being with Mother in the dressing room as she tried to fit me into the plaid, pleated skirts she found so stylish.

And then, in the period of time bridging 6th and 7th grades, I stumbled upon the motivation to lose weight. We moved to Florida, where my classmates lived in shorts and swim suits much of the time. And girls wore not one-piece suits, but two-piece, or even bikinis. Every weekend held a beach party, and there were no cartoon-like hippos lying on the sand or surfing. Also, this was the age of intense scrutiny, both from others and myself. While I was unhappy with my weight previously, adolescence put a new, more glaring spotlight on it. And then, perhaps hormonal changes didn’t hurt. In any case, I slimmed down. This was not a done deal by any means, as I fought with my appetite on and off for many years after. But as a young teen surely I could have enrolled in dance class.

Both of my younger sisters took dance at the Dussich Dance Studio, which is still in operation in Cocoa Beach. Liz Dussich has passed away, but one of my high school classmates, Nina Fedorovich, is now the director/teacher. Nina was taking dance lessons there when we were in high school. Perhaps I didn’t see myself worthy of dancing alongside one so perfectly sized and fit. I was no longer fat, but I was no Nina Fedorovich. So perhaps I never brought it up. Neither did my mom.

Years later I asked Mother, why did I never have dance lessons?

My mother explained that when I reached the age to start dancing she had no way to get me there since we only had one car. Dad took the car to work everyday of course. “How come Susie took dance then?“

“Dad was in a carpool when we lived in Maplewood,” she said.

Hmm. “And in Cocoa Beach?”

“You never showed an interest in taking dance then,” she said. Probably true.

Why have I hung on to the idea that I was deprived of dance lessons? I’ve harbored resentment over this for many years. “All of my sisters took dance,” I would say, mostly to myself but also to friends willing to listen. Did I long to dance? Did I actually have a strong yearning to be a ballerina? Surely if I had I would have pursued it. If I had told my mother I wanted to take dance lessons at Dussich she would have enrolled me. In fact, she probably would have been delighted, as she was about Carol and Mary taking dance.

Perhaps what I wanted was to feel pretty. To wear a leotard and tights, ballet slippers. And yes, tutus! Beautifully sequined dance costumes like those worn by my sisters in their dance recitals. They all had a shiny satin bodice and a flouncy nylon netting skirt. To play the part of the snow queen or a sugar plum fairy in the Nutcracker. I think I wanted to be a princess. Or princess-like. I wanted to try on my dance costume and see my parents’ eyes light up! “How pretty you look!” is what I craved.

So, yes. What I think I longed for was not to take dance lessons exactly. I longed to be seen as a beautiful little girl! To be seen that way by my parents, my grandparents and siblings. And to see myself that way. What I mourn is the confidence; the self-image that I felt was unavailable to me. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a girl who could be a dancer if she wanted to be.